Community invited to help Edmonds Bookshop celebrate 50th anniversary

Former and current Edmonds Bookshop owners will be on hand this Saturday, March 5 to greet visitors. L to R: David Brewster, Michelle Bear, Susan Hildebrandt and Mary Kay Sneeringer. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Get ready to celebrate on Saturday, March 5, as the Edmonds Bookshop marks a half century serving the community as Edmonds’ home-grown book seller. Stop in and join current owner Michelle Bear and past owners Mary Kay Sneeringer, David Brewster and Susan Hildebrandt to mark the milestone. It will be festive, and we’re promised that “there will be cake.”

It all started in 1972, when Kathie and John Chapman opened a bookstore in the art-deco Beeson Building at 408 Main St. (now home to ArtSpot). Little did anyone guess at the time, but that little bookstore planted a seed destined to grow into a local institution, community treasure and a bright thread in the fabric of Edmonds.

The L.C. Engel building in its original location at the corner of Fifth and Main, circa 1904. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

A few years later, an opportunity to expand the bookstore literally fell into the Chapmans’ laps when space became available in the L.C. Engel Building at 111 5th Ave. A barbershop was operating in the storefront at the time but was only using half the space. The Chapmans saw the unused side as the perfect new location for an expanded bookshop, and this remains the location of the Edmonds Bookshop today.

Built in 1904 and originally located on the corner of 5th and Main, the Engel building first housed L.C. Engel’s grocery and dry goods business on the street level, with the second floor used variously as a meeting hall, dance hall and general community space.

Engel subsequently sold the building and business to then-mayor Fred Fourtner and his wife Elsie, who in 1924 erected in its place the modern brick, mixed-use Fourtner building, which still stands today. Rather than demolish the Engel building, the Fourtners decided to physically move it half a block south to its present location and immediately adjacent to the new structure. In addition to the 1970s-era barbershop, the relocated Engel building became home to several businesses over the years, among them E.S. Denblow Plumbing (note the toilet in the window in the photo below). The new Fourtner Building has also seen a succession of tenants — it is currently home to the Edmonds Starbucks.

The relocated L.C. Engel Building at 111 5th Avenue was home to a succession of businesses before the Morrows purchased it in 1978 as the new home for the Bookshop. This photo from the mid-1930s shows one of these tenants, E.S. Denblow Plumbing. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

The Chapmans operated the bookstore at 111 5th for six years. In 1978, they got the urge to move on and put the business up for sale. They soon found a buyer in a couple newly arrived from Illinois, Jim and Betty Morrow.

Smart, inquisitive and a lifetime reader, Betty was drawn to the idea of running a bookstore.  She spent her childhood in Wheaton, Illinois, going on to earn her degree in psychology at William and Mary College, where she met Jim Morrow. The couple married in 1947, settled in Naperville, Illinois, and raised four children.  As the kids got older, fate took a hand and Betty found work in a local bookstore. Along with nurturing her lifelong love of books, the job provided a spark that grew into a new passion: the bookselling business.

As the children grew and left for college, Betty and Jim found themselves facing the age-old empty nest syndrome — and like so many parents in this situation, the couple began looking to relocate closer to their children.

A visit to their daughter who was attending school in Portland introduced them to the Pacific Northwest. They liked the area, and this combined with a desire to be closer to their daughter led them to pull up stakes and move west. In 1978 they found Edmonds, fell in love with the mountains, Puget Sound and the views, and decided that this would be a good place to land.

No sooner had they begun exploring Edmonds than they encountered the Chapmans and learned about their business for sale. In short order they decided to purchase the bookstore, thereby giving Betty the opportunity to dive feet first into bookselling and sharing her love of books and reading with others.

Owners Betty and Jim Morrow ran the Bookshop between 1978 and 1990. (Photo courtesy the Morrow family)

Along with the business, the Morrows also purchased the building, opting to close the barbershop operation and go full bore into books. They embarked on an extensive remodel, adding bookshelves and free-standing bookcases to the main floor bookstore and renovating the two upstairs apartments, giving birth to the Edmonds Bookshop as we know it today.

Thanks to the Morrows’ dedication and energy, combined with solid support from the community, the Edmonds Bookshop thrived over the next decade. But by that time, Jim and Betty had begun thinking about retirement, and in 1987 built a new home in Anacortes. They moved in as soon as it was completed and continued traveling to Edmonds to run the bookshop. But the travel was wearing, and three years later they put the business up for sale.

Once again, it didn’t take long for the right owners to come along – Susan and Barry Hildebrandt.

The Edmonds Bookshop, circa 1985.

Betty Morrow herself announced the change in a 1990 farewell letter to friends, customers and supporters, which not only introduced the new owners but stands as a testament to the Morrows’ love for the Edmonds community.

“1990 marks a new era of ownership for the Edmonds Bookshop with its purchase…by [Susan and] Barry Hildebrandt of Old Saybrook, Connecticut,” she wrote.  “After twelve years of enjoyable hard work, many engaging friends and acquaintances, and the ongoing excitement of bookselling it’s time for us to change direction and a great opportunity for the bookshop to experience new leadership.

“We hope you’ll find time soon to visit the store and meet Barry and his wife Susan, both of whom have a long association with books,” Morrow continued. “Over his 25+ years in the book business, Barry owned and operated several bookstores, worked with a large publishing company, served as instructor/administrator with the American Booksellers Association, wrote travel books, and established a small publishing company. The lure of a bookshop, Edmonds, and the Pacific Northwest brought us two thousand miles from Illinois in 1978; the same reasons have brought Barry and Susan from New England. Please welcome them. Parting from this very special world of friends who share a passion for books in a civil place is wrenching – we wish each of you farewell, and further adventures in the Edmonds Bookshop.”

The store may have moved, but the bookmarks stayed the same. The left bookmark shows the pre-1978 Main Street address. The one on the right shows the current address, 111 5th Ave. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Susan and Barry operated the bookshop for another decade, further building upon the loyal community following established by the Chapmans and Morrows. But time marches on, and in 2000 the Hildebrandts began to think seriously about retirement and started a quiet search for the next “steward” of the bookshop.

“We had several inquiries but weren’t in a huge rush to sell and thought it was more important to sell to the right person,” remarked Susan, who still works part-time in the Edmonds Bookshop. “Some of the folks we talked with had either no bookselling experience or no idea what they’d be getting into – or both! And over the years the bookshop had evolved into more than just a business – it’s a vital piece of the community, something to be cared for and nurtured. It had become a legacy. We didn’t want to sell to just any-old-body.”

It took almost a year for the right “somebodies” to walk through the door – the husband-wife team of David Brewster and Mary Kay Sneeringer, a couple with a lifetime of books in their blood, and whose major life milestones had been literally defined by their shared passion for books, bookstores and the bookselling business.

The couple met – of course – in a bookstore. It was the early 1980s, Brewster was in graduate school at the University of Washington, and both were working at the University Bookstore, David in literature and Mary Kay in general books and fiction. Brought together by their shared love for books, they fell in love and married in 1984.

After leaving grad school, Brewster took a job with Penguin Books as an outside sales rep. He and Sneeringer purchased a home in Ballard, and they subsequently had two daughters — Emma and Juliet. In 1990, Brewster accepted a new position with Houghton Mifflin, which required relocating the family – including the newborn Juliet – to Boston.

Seven years later, with Sneeringer’s father in ailing heath, the couple felt the pull of family and decided it was time to come back to the Northwest.

“We took four weeks to drive cross country in our old Plymouth Voyager with our daughters and their pet bunny Chestnut,” recalls Brewster with a smile. “We hit town in late summer 1997. Mary Kay found work at Second Story Books in Wallingford Center, and I was hired on at Starbucks as merchandise manager for their line of books and CDs.”

“We had talked idly over the years about how fun it would be to own a bookstore,” added Sneeringer. “But every time it came up, we shook our heads, rolled our eyes, and wrote it off as a crazy idea – but somehow the seed got planted and just wouldn’t give up.”

A critical twist of fate came at the 2000 Starbucks annual holiday party, where part of the festivities included a palm reader. Of course, Sneeringer couldn’t resist.

“She told me my career line was all broken up, and that it crossed with my success line,” she recalled. “I asked her what that might mean, and she said, ‘maybe you should start your own business.’ I gave a sly look to David and said, ‘Ha! Maybe we should buy a bookstore after all.’ We both had a good laugh, went back to the party, and thought that was that.”

Several days later, they decided to pick up a nice bottle of wine for a Christmas Eve party. The search brought them to Arista Wines in Edmonds, located at that time on 5th Avenue a few storefronts south of the fountain and adjacent to the bookshop.

“As we walked past the bookshop, I saw a little sign saying that the business is for sale,” added Sneeringer. “On a whim I went in and talked with Barry, mentioned that I’m a bookseller, and told him I just might be interested.”

Over the holidays, Brewster and Sneeringer talked about it — a lot.

“It was yes/no, up/down,” she recalled. “But the Hildebrandts were reasonable in their terms, so after a lot of discussion we ultimately decided to hold our collective breath and take the plunge.”

“For our part, Barry and I wanted to make sure the bookshop remained viable, and that meant selling to the right person,” remarked Susan Hildebrandt. “After meeting and talking with David and Mary Kay, it quickly became clear that they would be the perfect folks to carry on the legacy of the Edmonds Bookshop.”

David Brewster and Mary Kay Sneeringer after they took ownership of the Edmonds Bookshop on March 1, 2001. (Photo courtesy Mary Kay Sneeringer)

The sale was completed and on March 1, 2001, Sneeringer and Brewster officially took over the bookshop. (Read more about the couple and how they found and purchased the bookshop in My Edmonds News’ 2021 story here).

“Barry wanted to retire right away,” explained Susan.  But I wanted to stick around for a month or so to help with the transition and see what happens. That was 20 years ago, Barry has since passed on, and I’m still here working part time!”

But again, time marches on and last year Brewster and Sneeringer decided it was time to step into semi-retirement and pass the day-to-day operation of the bookshop along to the next caretaker (note we’re not saying “owner”) who would carry the legacy forward.

“We were fortunate to have the perfect person right here in the bookshop,” said Sneeringer. “Our assistant manager, Michelle Bear.”

Bear lives in Edmonds, started working at the Bookshop in 2007, and loved it from the start. Promoted to assistant manager in 2016, she was one of the rare full-time bookshop employees. (Learn more in My Edmonds News’ 2021 story profiling Michelle Bear here).

From left, Edmonds Bookshop owners David Brewster and Mary Kay Sneeringer with Michelle Bear. (August 2021 file photo by Larry Vogel)

“Michelle’s skills and talents really shone through when the pandemic hit,” said Sneeringer. “The bookshop was forced to close for three months, and Michelle kept us in business by setting up a brand-new online ordering system and turning the store into a mini-warehouse. She processed online orders, arranged deliveries (David was pressed into service as the delivery guy), and kept the accounts straight.

“I’m convinced we could not have survived the pandemic without her – she just found the way to make it work,” she added. “Add to that the strong support from our customers – Carol Doig among them – who stepped up to support us and went out of their way to bring in business. Michelle pulled the levers, but in the end it was the community that kept us going.”

While the pandemic posed the most recent set of challenges, the bookshop has weathered others over the years. First, it was competition from book “superstores” like Borders and Barnes & Noble, then it was online booksellers, e-readers threatening to make books a thing of the past, and more. But through it all, the Edmonds Bookshop remained viable, busy and a vital part of the community.

“I believe there will always be a place for people who want to read books,” said Brewster. “Customers love the shopping experience as much as the reading experience, and interacting with a knowledgeable, book-savvy staff. I have an e-reader, but it’s nothing like sitting down with real book, turning the pages and losing yourself in the content. And it spans ages – seniors, adults, teenagers – people may have flirted with e-readers, but they’re coming back to books.”

“Customers may look at books online, but then come here to buy,” added Sneeringer. “As professional booksellers we are more than just bookshop owners. We’re like curators – we know the business, what’s out there, what’s coming up. We help, advise, suggest books that we think our customers would enjoy. We can knowledgably talk about books with our customers.”

As for Brewster and Sneeringer, they’ll be taking retirement a day at a time. With a new seven-week-old granddaughter (Jane) taking up their focus, the couple has no immediate plans for anything beyond enjoying life.

“We’re still in the Edmonds home we purchased when we returned from Boston,” said Sneeringer. “I do plan to continue at the bookshop part time, but that’s about it – for now I won’t be volunteering for anything beyond lavishing time and attention on granddaughter Jane.”

The Edmonds Bookshop reader board announcing this Saturday’s 50th anniversary celebration. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

And what about the next 50 years at the bookshop?

“I’m here and I don’t see moving,” said Bear. “I live in Edmonds and I love it. This is the community’s bookstore, and I’m just the caretaker till the next owner comes along. But I sure don’t see that happening anytime soon.

“Come back in another 50 years,” concluded Bear. “We’ll be here for you, I promise.”

The community is invited to join Michelle, David, Mary Kay and Susan on Saturday, March 5 to officially mark the 50th anniversary of the Edmonds Bookshop.  A splendid time is guaranteed for all, and “there will be cake,” reminded Mary Kay.

— By Larry Vogel

  1. Happy 50th Birthday, Edmonds Bookshop! I have always appreciated having a bookshop in Edmonds but none more so than these past two years! What a lifesaver you have been to so many of us keeping us supplied in wonderful books. David delivering them has also been greatly appreciated. You are not only our bookshop but have also been our friends through the years. You are just a call or an email away. Thank You!!!

  2. What a wonderful journey the Edmonds Bookshop has seen. The shop is one of the highlights of downtown Edmonds, and I’m happy it survives the worst of the pandemic. I’m grateful I was able to purchase books during the early stages of the pandemic. David’s at-home deliveries meant same day service with a smile.
    The booksellers are friendly and knowledgeable, something you don’t get with a big box or chain. Happy 5oth!

  3. On Saturday mornings in 1973, there were two stops in downtown Edmonds. First was coffee and doughnuts and the week supply fresh bread from the Edmonds Bakery and then a couple doors away at the Edmonds Bookstore to find treasures which some are still on my bookshelf.
    In later years my job took me away from Emonds but at that time I still had family to visit and each trip back always required a trip to the Edmonds Bookstore always finding another treasure to take home with me after giving it a good review before purchasing while sitting in that big old comfortable chair in the front of the store and yes I still have some of those books which will be passed along to the kids someday.
    Happy 50th Anniversary and Thanks for the pleasant memories.

  4. Thank you for all the support you give to the Edmonds Arts community, especially the EPIC Writers Groups!

  5. What a wonderful story. Congratulations to all and thank you for being part of the community.

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